Organic Irish whiskey producer Waterford is celebrating the humble barley grain through organic and biodynamic farming practices.

Waterford Whisky’s sustainability story began with a desire to highlight terroir in whiskey, showcasing the flavours of individual barley farms. For founder and CEO Mark Reynier, whiskey lost its connection to terroir during the industrialisation of whiskey in the 1970s and 80s, when production methods were regulated and volumes were increased.

“What we decided to do at Waterford, it happened accidentally, is that we went backwards. It wasn’t my intention,” he said.

After selling Bruichladdich in 2012, Reynier began to make whiskey in the way it was made in years prior, a period he refers to as the Age of Innocence.

“It was smaller distilleries, more regional, distilling better, in better wood, with better barley,” he said.

This led Reynier towards barley growers utilising sustainable growing practices, as these methods of farming enhanced the natural flavours of the grain, as well as being closer to the way in which barley was farmed during this Age of Innocence.

Proving terroir

Reynier began his career as a wine merchant, and with his background in wine, the role of terroir in whiskey seemed obvious. However, other industry members were critical of its existence.

“If you’re a wine person, if you’re a food person, terroir is second nature, absolutely second nature, but when it comes to whiskey, it’s like headlights and rabbits,” he said.

This prompted the Whisky Terroir Project, which saw Dr Dustin Herb from the University of Oregon work with the Ministry of Agriculture in Ireland and Scotland’s leading whisky laboratory to research the impact of terroir on barley and the whiskey made from it. The research revealed that barley has an incredible number of flavour compounds.

“Do you know many flavour compounds there are in cheese? There are 10 flavour compounds in cheese. In wine, there are a few more. There are 500 in wine. There are 2000 in barley.” Reynier said.

The research also found that 60 per cent of these flavour compounds are influenced by terroir. Interestingly, the flavours were not significantly impacted by the variety of barley being used.

“We thought, that can’t be right. The most flavoursome cereal in the world and yet it doesn’t matter what variety you use? That can’t be right,” said Reynier.

Modern barley has been developed with economic considerations in mind, such as disease resistance, high yields, climate adaptability. However, the vast majority of modern barley varietals stem from the combination of two genetically similar strains, and this genetic similarity has limited the ability of barley to change over time.

“Barley has been mutating for the last 10,000 years, and as it constantly mutates, it adapts to its environment, it adapts to its terroir, and it keeps increasing these flavours. It can’t help itself. In fact, the perversity is the one thing that stopped it mutating any further is the whiskey industry itself,” Reynier said.

This prompted Reynier to investigate heirloom varieties of barley, to find the missing links between modern barley and the barley utilised in earlier whiskey production.

“We got permission from the Ministry of Agriculture to go and raid their seed bank. They’ve kept 100 grams of every variety of barley since the Middle Ages, the wild varieties, and crossed varieties. We were able to choose five. We did our own research and we looked for the word, heaven forbid, flavour. We looked not for efficacy, but flavour, and we found five references to flavour,” he said.

Waterford Whisky has now begun cultivating this barley and hopes to release a line of heritage grain whiskies in the future.

Sustainable farming

In order to highlight the terroir of the whiskey, Waterford Whisky is incredibly selective of where it sources its barley from. To date, it has sourced barley from more than 100 Irish barley farms, although not every farm’s barley makes it into a Waterford Whisky.

Many of the grains that best represent their terroir have been farmed through sustainable methods, such as organic and biodynamic farming. Reynier is particularly drawn to biodynamic farming. While the term is relatively new, having been codified by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s, biodynamic farming is something that has existed for much longer.

“Biodynamics is the oldest farming method known to man. This is what our forefathers knew since the last Ice Age. It is the purest of the pure.

“Fred Flintstone didn’t exactly get in his car and go down to the farmers market and stock up with chemical fertilizers and the latest insecticides and that. They had to make do. If you want to use a euphemism for biodynamics, it’s making do. Everything you need is on your farm,” Reynier said.

As well as benefiting the environment, this sustainably farmed barley has a major impact on the whiskey’s flavour.

“There is a bolt of lightning that goes through this whiskey. That’s as near as I can to describe it. It’s very, very cerebral,” Reynier said.

Naturally delicious

Just as Reynier strives to use barley grown without chemicals and artificial fertilisers, the whiskey at Waterford is made in much the same way.

“It’s barley, yeast, and water. There’s no colouring. There are no enzymes. There are no flavour essences. There’s no E150, chill filtration, oak essences, or flavouring essences. This is just barley, yeast, and water as it used to be,” he said.

For Reynier, the biggest benefit of these processes is in the flavour of the spirit itself.  Due to the intensity and purity of flavour of Waterford Whisky, Reynier encourages consumers to add water while drinking.

“They’re all bottled at 50 per cent ABV because we want you to add water. Adding water to natural whiskey, we’ve done it already to bring it to 50 per cent, so adding bit more is really just regulating the alcohol strength for your palate for right now.

“You will not dilute the flavour and you will not dilute the texture. You will only dilute the alcohol, and that’s one of the magic things of natural whiskey,” he said.

Ultimately, Reynier is of the opinion that the best way to produce whiskey is by focusing on the grain, and preserving the flavours that it gathers from its natural environment.

“What I’m trying to say is that with natural whiskey, all the flavours, they’re just there. Let it hang out. All the flavours are there if you know how to access them and let whiskey do its thing as it used to,” he said.

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